The RTÉ commentator Hugh Cahill teed it up when he said: “The roar for Devin Toner, listen to this.” As requested, we listened, and we watched.
Twenty-one days ago, the clock had stopped at 61:21 when Devin Toner ran across the pitch to the sound of more than 50,000 fans applauding him off in Ireland’s game with New Zealand. There was still 20 minutes left to play but this ovation was an acknowledgement of how he had played, irrespective of the result.
“He never gets the accolades that he deserves but he’s put in a massive shift today,” Donal Lenihan verified, a man who knows a thing or two about the body of work a lock must get through.
It had, indeed, been a massive shift from Toner.
Ninety-one seconds before he came off, he got a parting gift from the All Blacks’ big man who he had helped bring down to size.
As Toner tried to close down space around Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick came from behind him and gave him a sneaky shove in the back. It was petty from Retallick. It also looked like the frustrated admission of a man who knew he had brought a knife to a gun-fight.
Retallick must have wondered how it had come to this. The previous weekend he neutered the threat of Lions superstar Maro Itoje in crucial line-outs at Twickenham. There was just over 13 minutes gone at the Aviva Stadium when it was flagged that Ireland were going after Retallick.
As Barrett swept the ball across to Retallick, Toner chopped his stride like a 400m hurdler to tackle him at just the right moment. Toner then wrapped himself around Retallick before grounding him with the help of his wing-man, James Ryan. It took 10 seconds for the stunned New Zealander to get back to his feet.
“He just fell on the ground like a bag of spuds,” was how Lenihan eloquently put it.
No other player has featured more in Joe Schmidt’s term as Ireland head coach than Toner.
“It’s because of him that I am where I am, to be honest,” the 32-year-old said this week about Schmidt.
Toner has played 63 times for Ireland with 56 of those caps coming under Schmidt. Of the 56 appearances, 47 have been starts.
Toner will play for the 225th time for Leinster today (he is the third-highest-capped Leinster player of all time – Jamie Heaslip is second with 229 caps, Gordon D’Arcy is first with 260) in their Champions Cup game in Bath.
He made his debut the same day as Johnny Sexton in January 2006 in Donnybrook. The opposition club that day, Border Reivers, are no longer in existence.
Locks have a fondness for cornering the market when it comes to having a presence to match their size. Think of how furrowed Martin Johnson’s brow was when he responded to the poor Lansdowne Road official on the red carpet in 2003 with a ‘we’re not moving’ warning (or words to that effect).
Think of John Eales and his nickname ‘Nobody’ for nobody’s perfect.
Think of Paul O’Connell and the sheer intensity of his aggression and passion.
Think of how the role of lock evolved with Itoje’s performances on the Lions tour in New Zealand last year. Think Retallick. Think Ryan.
Think of the players Toner trained with every day and played with in Leinster including Leo Cullen, Malcolm O’Kelly, Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn. But Toner has cornered the market on being himself.
He’s not known for inspirational orations like O’Connell. He’s not generally known for statement tackles like that huge one on Retallick.
He was never called up to the Lions squad and there was never much of an outcry when he wasn’t included. Last year I asked Toner if the prototype for a lock had changed post-Lions. He said: “I don’t think it’s changed massively to be honest, hopefully it hasn’t anyway, or I’ll be out of a job.”
However, players like Itoje, Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson, who can all play in the back-row as well, have broadened the brief on how we view the workload of a conventional second-row player.
When Toner was dropped to the bench for Ireland’s 13-9 win over England to deny Eddie Jones’s team a Grand Slam in Dublin on the final day of the 2017 Six Nations, it looked like his international days as first-choice lock could start to peter out.
He was on the bench again versus England for the Grand Slam-winning game in March this year, with Ryan and Henderson starting (Toner came off the bench in Paris but started against Italy, Wales and Scotland).
Maybe it’s no surprise that he wasn’t in the squad for Ireland’s only defeat of 2018 against Australia in the first Test in June. And there was no surprise when he was recalled to the starting team to play the All Blacks after being on the bench against Argentina.
Toner is the prototype Schmidt player for doing the basics of his job extremely well. There is no secret to what keeps him in fashion with Schmidt and Cullen, but it does go beyond the answers found in his 6ft 10in and 124kg frame which comes in handy for restarts, lineouts and scrummaging. His composure as a lineout caller also marks him out.
“One of the first things that sticks out is just how cool, calm and collected he is,” former Ireland and Leinster lock Mike McCarthy said this week about Toner.
“I remember going to a Test match on the bus to the Aviva. I get pretty nervous before games and I’d be looking at my play-sheet. And I’d look across and Dev is sitting there playing ‘Candy Crush’ on his phone. Under the highest pressure he is just so calm. And what that does is it makes you calm and gives you confidence.
“When you’re in charge of running a lineout you certainly feel under a hell of a lot more pressure. But you just never see Dev fazed by that. While he doesn’t come across as over-confident he would be very confident in his own abilities.”
What makes Toner very much the modern Ireland player is that he isn’t afraid to talk publicly about confidence and belief. He doesn’t come across as a guy who would need to talk himself down in order to get the best out of himself. There is a lightness to being Devin Toner.
“Confidence is at an all-time high, it’s big within the squad,” he said before the England game last March.
“Getting those 11 wins in a row, it’s huge. It definitely boosts the feeling.”
And what were the repercussions of an Irish player speaking about confidence in public before playing England? Nothing. The heavens didn’t fall in. A Grand Slam was still won.
Maybe his calmness is linked with his durability. In an interview in September, Toner said: “I don’t think I’ve ever missed a game because of injury.”
McCarthy added, with good humour: “He just shows how resilient he is that he never gets injured. He’s so clumsy at training, he often injures lads (but) he doesn’t mean to. There’s a running theme in training that you try and avoid Dev because he’s all knees and elbows!”
This week Toner spoke about the competition in the second-row, which is coming from all corners.
“There’s young guys coming though all over the place, even in Leinster here. You’ve got five second-rows and they’re all from St Michaels. There’s talent everywhere.”
Of his own longevity, he said: “People have said over the years that second-rows get better with age.
“I feel like I’m good at the minute, I’ve no knocks or niggles. I’m just trying to focus on what I need to do right”.
Bring on the young talent. All newcomers welcome.
But big Dev is in no rush to leave a stage he’s played a huge part in building.
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